Tuesday, 03 November 2009

Not surprisingly, what I saw in my flashforward wasn't me watching Flashforward. If I were to tell you that a television series in which John Cho (a.k.a. the Harold who went to White Castle) consistently steals scenes from Joseph Fiennes (of the Acting Fienneses) exists, you'd likely laugh at me. But it does. Every Thursday night brings us another bizarrely-paced episode of Flashforward. Loosely based on the Robert J. Sawyer novel (which I haven't read) of the same name, the show follows a team of FBI agents investigating the origin of a worldwide loss of consciousness. For two minutes and thirteen seconds, everyone on the planet lost consciousness and (as per the title) caught an exclusive showing of their lives six months in the future (29 April 2010).* The premise is interesting enough, and when the narrative focuses on the secular equivalent of arguments about predestination, the show works. For example, because so many people seemed to have obscenely meaningful flashforwards, even those people who saw themselves walking into an unfamiliar parking garage imbue theirs with meaning. The parking lot, after all, may only be unfamiliar now because a character hasn't been fired from one firm and hired by another. The characters mostly know this, but watching them struggle against the inevitability of the mundane makes for compelling television; however, the motor of the show is the drunken memory of Fiennes's Agent Mark Benford, who saw himself in his office 1) struggling to make sense of the whiteboard on which he and his team are collating the evidence of what caused the blackout and 2) being hunted by a team of assassins. The first element of his flashforward presents clues worthy of a Robbe-Grillet novel, in that Agent Benford is a recovering alcoholic trying to make sense of a half-seen evidence board while being pounded by the guilt of drinking after seven years of sobriety. He knows himself to be an unreliable narrator—is burdened by the fact of it—and yet he struggles to recreate the whiteboard as he remembers it from his flashforward. It's the second element of the flashforward that troubles me, not because I have qualms about David S. Goyer works featuring assassins (perish the thought), but because such action threatens to overwhelm the legitimately compelling high-conceptual quality of the show. This is not to say the two can't be combined: in one episode, for example, none of the FBI agents involved in a shootout bother to take cover because they know they're going to be alive six months later. But unless the writers veer into Longshot territory and have characters jump off buildings for the thrill of learning the strained chain of happenstance to which the universe must resort to keep them alive another six months, they run the risk of turning half of each episode into a tensionless exercise in faked foolhardiness. (The law of diminishing returns actually kicked in before that first action sequence ended.) You might object that viewers have been so thoroughly conditioned by a lifetime of televisual convention that they'll find such scenes compelling...
Tea-V-Parties It must have been difficult to be a conservative last night. On the one hand, you threw your muscle behind your perfect candidate and he lost a district which last went Democratic back before the Half-Breeds and the Stalwarts fought for control of the GOP; on the other, you got a television show made especially for you! The remake of V is an exercise in allegorical drift-correction: the original series was supposed to be based on Sinclair Lewis's novel about creeping government fascism, which was itself an allegory about demagogic dangers posed by the likes of Huey Long and Father Coughlin, who were themselves perceived to be homegrown Hitlers, but then Star Wars happened and the network demanded Space Nazis, so the fascists became lizards and, instead of wanting to rule America, they wanted to eat Americans, meaning they cured diseases for the same altruistic reasons we pump cattle full of antibiotics. That, as they say in the business, is some mighty powerful drift, and it requires some equally unsubtle mastery to correct course. In the original series, the Nazi parallel was made palpable via regalia and youth groups; in the remake, they do so via a Maddow-esque Scott Wolf asking the leader of the Visitors if they offer universal health care. Note the slight shift in the assumption required to move from alien to fascist? The expert in fictional fascisms did:I simultaneously loved the "universal health care" line and thought it was a bit hamfisted. I do like that it all bothers Jonathan Chait so much, but I think they could have been a bit more subtle. However, it's worth recalling that the visitors in the original series promised to cure diseases as well. I think Chait goes overboard too when he says the show is a loveletter to the Tea Party movement. Jonah Goldberg is, it goes without saying, wrong, but in this case his error is understandable because he was instrumental in creating the conditions that made it possible. The only people for whom universal health care signals a creeping fascism are 1) people who were convinced by the "arguments" proffered in Liberal Fascism, and 2) people who believe Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are the future of the Republican Party. Granted, there is a substantial overlap between those camps, but my point is that unless you share core beliefs with, broadly speaking, the Tea Party movement, that reference fails to refer. The allegory only works if universal health care is a link in the chain that secures space lizards to fascism. UPDATE: todd. makes a suggestion and (with one minor revision) I heartily agree. From now on, "JGIGWOSIW" it is. (If only because that's the noise my brain makes when I read something he's written.)

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